A recent study that makes a critical analysis of the Calgary LRT system points out well that Calgary’s automobile dependency has not decreased. The study gathers facts and debunks several ideals that most critics point out as ways of making the system successful, when in reality it is not that way. We have quoted similar studies that apply to similar cities with light rail systems such as Portland, Oregon.
Calgary’s system and this study of it interests us in several ways because:
- Calgary is a Canadian city
- Calgary has been operating its C-Train rapid transit system for approximately as much time as Vancouver has been operating the SkyTrain rapid transit system
- The Calgary C-Train has the highest boarding count of any LRT system in North America and has also been regarded as the most cost-effective.
Interestingly, the study claims that the C-Train has acted more as a tool for encouraging urban sprawl than preventing it and that it has not decreased automobile dependency. This can be seen with the increasing trend in sprawl-based development patterns on outward areas of the city.
 – Some past and present Calgary Transit officials have recognized that rather than curtailing sprawl, the CTrain has actually helped drive urban sprawl. By extending rail transit far into the suburbs, the City has made it more convenient for families to locate further away from the core.
In a recent Calgary Herald article, Calgary Transit Planning Manager Neil McKendrick hinted at the CTrain’s role in driving up road costs: “It should allow Calgary to be a more compact city, but what it’s done is it’s actually allowed Calgary to continue to develop outward because it was so easy to get to the LRT and then get other places.”
This may not be a problem in Calgary where a large amount of land has not only been allocated for building so many homes but also for providing adequate infrastructure, which includes roads. However, Surrey cannot follow the same policies – it does not have the room to easily accommodate additional roads everywhere nor the funding for such levels of increased road expansion, nor is there room in this region to build suburban sprawl in much the same way.
The C-Train LRT may be doing nothing to address automobile dependency and may be in fact making it worse. This is not necessarily a problem with LRT as a technology, but it’s important to look at the policies that make this so in understanding why we need to build SkyTrain in Surrey.
In Calgary, downtown parking is limited and expensive, which may help to reduce downtown vehicle commutes – however, this was complemented by the introduction of cheap parking at C-Train park-n-rides (once low-cost, today it is free) , which might be responsible for attracting a lot of LRT riders considering that this option may provide an acceptable level of mobility and travel time for most users. This concept is called transportation demand management, and is a recognized a way to increase transit mode-share. It doesn’t, however, support the mentality that the primary way of getting around town is by public transit. In Calgary, the established way of getting around is still by car. Many people who ride the C-Train drive first to a park & ride and then make their way.
Studies have pointed out that:
- Calgary spends more money per capita on roads than any other city in Canada (25% higher than the next closest rival, which is Edmonton) 
- More than 75% of Calgary commuters-to-work choose to commute by car , and
- Downtown commutes also prefer the vehicle, with more people in Calgary people driving down-town than in any other city in Canada 
Whereas Calgary has not moved away from following low-density development patterns and a largely car-dominated atmosphere, despite $2 billion of LRT construction; and whereas this LRT system has the highest boarding counts and is regarded to have the highest cost-effectiveness in North America, then surely, this is not a good example for Surrey to follow. This is because the reason the Calgary C-Train has high ridership has more to do with transportation demand management than with the LRT system actually being a decent system to ride.
And, while it is certainly a goal of rapid transit to prevent congestion (as the Calgary C-Train is working against full-scale driving commutes that would congest roadways into the city core), it would seem like the C-Train’s greatness doesn’t fit with our mandate here in Metro Vancouver and Surrey to establish that the primary way of getting around is with public transit.
- Reference #80 – FCPP critical study on Calgary LRT
- Reference #66 – BENCHMARKING ACTIVE TRANSPORTATION IN CANADIAN CITIES